Q&A

How Do I Use Public Domain Characters Respectfully?

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Hello, I had a writing-based question I hope you would be able to answer. I’m writing a book in which I feature several characters from the public domain. The setting will not be the original setting that any of the characters are from. I want to write these characters as respectfully to the original authors’ stories as possible while it still being my own story, along with not disappointing too many fans of the original works either. Would you have any tips for my writing these characters? (If it matters, in this case I’m using specifically horror-based characters including but not limited to Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and Jekyll and Hyde.)

-Victoria

Hi Victoria,

That sounds like a fun project!

However, I think you might be at risk of trying to please too many people. Every story in classic literature will have many takes and viewpoints, and you can’t do them all. For instance, if you want to please fans, which fans? The common take by the transformative fandom community will be very different than what the literary community thinks. Even the idea of being respectful to the original story opens up a lot of questions about what being respectful means. Classic stories are products of their time, and a good retelling makes changes for a modern audience.

You’re not a big-budget studio with an exclusive license to bring a well-loved book to the big screen, so your depiction won’t deprive fans of seeing other portrayals of these characters. And since there will be other works out there with these characters, you’ll want your depiction to be different from them. With some characters, there is a risk of making your version feel like a totally different person who happens to have the same name. But the characters you’ve chosen have really distinct powers, etc. As long as Dorian Gray has a painting that ages for him, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.

Now, if you’re interested in how people have responded to and imagined these characters, you can consume other works about them and then see if there’s some stories with them in fandom collections like AO3. It doesn’t hurt to see what aspects of the characters have captured the popular imagination. You’ll know what’s been done, and you can look up reviews to see how people have responded. But again, I don’t think you should try to make everyone happy; I think you’ll enjoy more success if you follow a vision of your own.

Best wishes with whatever direction you decide to go in,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I think the most important thing to do public domain characters justice is to make sure they keep the traits, skills, and powers which define them. Not to stick the name ‘Dorian Gray’ on someone without bringing in that painting, for instance (in a novel which I read once, Gray had expanded on that – he was selling cars which had a painting of them in the trunk and would recover from every damage while the km-tracker ran backwards; once it reached 0, the car would destroy itself with the driver inside). Not to do Jekyll and Hyde without the transformation (if you want to stick close to the source, perhaps also the reason why Jekyll creates that alter ego – so he can appear to be the perfect person while at the same time stilling his baser needs in Hyde’s body).

    • Dave L

      That was Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear, right?

      While Cay Reet is absolutely correct about details, one thing I would add is don’t overdo them. You don’t need to include EVERY bit of info about the character. For instance, if Dr. Jekyll is a character, you probably don’t have to mention the lawyer Utterson and you almost certainly don’t have to mention that his full name is Gabriel John Utterson, unless there’s actually a story reason. You want to entertain the reader, not show off how much research you did

      If I could write a Wikipedia entry about the character based entirely on your story, you overdid it

      Good luck w/ your project

      • Cay Reet

        Yup, it was the Fourth Bear. I loved the foreshadowing and who took the damage in the end.

        Yes, with public domain characters, you don’t need to reproduce the complete content of the original story. They should be recognizable and if you use their names, you should make sure they’re not too far away from the original, but there’s no reason to rehash their whole story the same way. I actually had forgotten about the lawyer, to be honest, he’s not absolutely necessary to tell the story, as long as you have some way to convey Jekyll’s motivation.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    You can’t please everyone, but I think it’s generally a good idea to build on your own take of the original story (even though that won’t be everyone’s take), rather than just the stereotypical version from popular consciousness.

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